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The Emerging Lesson of the Emerging Church

emerging-church-1Back in the day, oh, you know, like 8 -10 years ago, the Emergent Church was all the buzz. It was either the coolest thing to hit Christians or the dumbest thing to hit non-Christians, depending on who you listened to. Either way, it’s soooo passé nowadays.

So it’s the perfect time to learn a simple lesson from it. What is that lesson? It’s this: God, not man, defines the church.

This is easily demonstrated in a book called The Emerging Church written in 2003 by Dan Kimball.

He’s still serving a church in California and is a gifted communicator. He got beat up pretty bad on the internet back in the day when emergent churches were viable entities. His latest book, Churchland (2012) is part biography, describing his personal thoughts on church, religion, and Christians.


We Are the Kind of Church
that We Tell You We Are

What was the emerging church? Rick Warren described it as what a “purpose driven church can look like in a post-modern world” (p. 7). Wikipedia says it was a group of folks who “mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community.”

A bit more rewarding is the critique of D.A. Carson. He wrote that its leaders are “painfully reductionistic about modernism and the confessional Christianity that forged its way through the modernist period” and that they “give the impression of dismissing” Christianity.”[1]Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, p. 64)

Well, we have to throw away Warren’s hopeful definition of what a church “can look like” because the emerging church is extinct. The particular emergent ministry Dan Kimball started no longer exists, nor does anyone identify themselves as emergent anymore (perhaps someone can prove me wrong?).

So here’s why they went extinct. Listen to Kimball define the church:

“There is not one verse in the New Testament that says, ‘they went to church…’ it is actually impossible to ‘go to church.’”

He goes on to write,

“the church is not the building, nor is it the meeting. The church is the people of God who gather together with a sense of mission. We can’t go to church because we are the church” (p. 91).

That’s it, all right there. Did you catch it? “There’s not one verse in the New Testament that says, ‘they went to church…'”

Not true.

There’s seven in 1 Corinthians 11-14 alone. Here’s two: “… when you come together as the church… when you come together in one place” (see 1 Cor. 11:18-20, NKJV).

The “church” in Corinth is a meeting of people who come together to be church. They weren’t church when they got up that Sunday morning, but they became church when they came together. The others: 1 Cor. 11:17, 11:33, 11:34, 14:23, 26). And then there are the verses about getting together to do something: Mat. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:4, Col. 4:15-16, 2 Thess. 3:6, 3:14, and I’m only just getting started.

It’s inescapable – how can people be a church without gathering for worship? Dan admits it himself in the quote above when he writes, “people of God who gather together…” That gathering is “going to church,” my friend.

Now, the rest of the quote: “people of God who gather together with a sense of mission” stuff, well, who knows what people have in their minds when they gather together. All kinds of stuff. But a sense of mission? Some Christians who went to church in Corinth had a mission of schism on their mind (1 Cor. 11:19). That’s not the mission Dan wants.

The emergent church tried to de-institutionalize the church, and lost.


The Oldest Debate Tactic

It’s the oldest debate tactic: “he who establishes the terms of the debate wins the debate.” Problem is, Jesus, not Dan, defines church. It belongs to Him.

The emerging church was a push back against the church as an institution with a God-given structure for leadership and God given institutional goals. In distinction to what emergent advocates have taught, the church isn’t just the people. It is also an institution that has the likelihood of offending folks who come from a post-modern mindset.

Brian-mcclarenIn a foreword to Dan’s book Brian McLaren wrote, “No doubt, as we move into the postmodern world, we will look back and see ways in which our modern understandings of the gospel were limited or flawed, and no doubt, we must be humble and careful, because we can and will make the same mistakes in our context” (p. 9-10).

And so with a bit of chastening we are told that mistakes are cool. Really? We are dealing with God and people. There’s no reason we have to make the same mistakes, unless we refuse to define church the way Jesus does.



  1. What Christian movements today appeal by saying, “don’t go to church, be the church!?”
  2. What Christian movements today appeal by saying, ‘we aren’t just people, we are the Church!?”
  3. What Christian movements today appeal by saying, ‘we aren’t a church, we’re ________________?”
  4. At the end of the chapter I cited in Kimball’s book  he gives 2 discussion questions: “How would the average person in your church define the word church? How would your leaders define it?

Given his quotes in this post, why is that dangerous?


Suggested further reading – Jesus Defines His Church.

References   [ + ]

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